The revolution wasn’t a given—Eric Roche and Kate Bender talk about the people-powered shifts that made a big difference for how their city operates.
When cities change how they use and manage data, it’s not just about having the right technology. It’s also about people—and the way they use that data, whether they’re behind a desk in a city office or looking out from an apartment window.
In Kansas City, MO, there’s been a positive culture shift around data in the past decade. Residents can find open data on a popular portal, journalists can use a 311 call database to track trends and spot new stories, and city employees routinely collect and share data as part of their everyday workflows, using it to inform critical decisions about allocating resources.
These changes hinged on the humans who made it happen from the top down and the bottom up—sometimes, before even officially inhabiting a designated role. Eric Roche, for example, stepped into his job in a single instant. He was thrilled to realize he’d been appointed when, he says, “we were in a beautiful room in City Hall, on the top floor, for a conference call… the city manager introduced everyone else on the call and then introduced me—as the chief data officer.”
Yet despite the sudden formalization, it was a role that had been brewing for a while—Roche’s involvement in the data operations of Kansas City began when he was a fellow in the Cookingham-Noll Management program six years ago, cycling through city departments to learn how each one worked. His skillset fit well with the Office of Performance Management, which was ramping up efforts to use city data in innovative ways. From there, he spent his nights and weekends learning programming and data analysis, and then began spearheading open data efforts.
Now Kansas City is known for what Roche calls “full-stack transparency”—data that’s shared internally and externally, to be used by city decisionmakers, the media, and the residents themselves.
A Team Effort, a Hive Mind
Roche says that a cohesive, highly effective and cross-functional data team has been a key aspect of this success. His corner of city government is now known officially as Data KC, after getting their start as the Office of Performance Management. But internally, the tight-knit team of four calls themselves the Hive Mind.
One key member of this dynamic team—and one of the earliest champions of city data—is Kate Bender. Now the team’s senior management analyst, Bender started working with the city in 2007, also after a Cookingham-Noll Management fellowship.
At the time, Kansas City’s 311 system had a new CRM on the back end. Bender saw untapped potential in the new CRM: data was being collected, but no one was dedicated to pulling data out. What lessons could they learn from running queries? She decided to find out.
These days, the 311 database helps shape all sorts of city priorities, and it’s been cited by journalists as an extremely helpful resource. Over time, Bender’s data work grew to include a resident survey that helped identify city priorities based on what residents wanted and needed. Along the way, a new city manager championed the need for transparency, the team grew to four analysts and counting, and they became co-located with the 311 team.
“It’s the nerve center,” Bender says.
Why Top-Down Support Is Critical
Although the early efforts of Data KC were very much bottom-up, as both Roche and Bender found their niches and pushed for culture change, Bender says that none of it could have happened without the support of city leadership. She says: “Having data available? That exists in most organizations and is not a true barrier. But most organizations, if they want to be more data-informed, absolutely need leadership to make it an explicit priority. Our city manager dedicated two hours a week to meeting with departments and going through data.”
Bender also says that KC Stat, the centralized hub for the city’s data initiatives, was architected by the mayor. Without those two efforts at the top, Bender says, “I don’t know if we would have gotten the buy-in over time.”
How to Make Internal Change That Sticks
Still, with or without top-down support, it’s not impossible to push for change. Here are Kate Bender’s best suggestions for those looking to push for a culture shift.
- Repetition: To get people to care about data, it has to be put in front of them over and over. Make it part of a regular meeting; weave it into conversations about making decisions.
- Resonance: Tell the story of how a culture shift will be a win-win for everyone. Once departments start to see that your interests align, it’ll be easier for them to make the shift.
- Relevance: Make sure that whatever changes you’re advocating for will clearly support the goals and priorities being championed by the wider organization.
As data becomes more integral to city operations, the value of transparency becomes more and more obvious, she says. For example, the city’s residents’ survey has become an important feedback mechanism that helps shape the city’s budget. When the city recently asked voters to authorize $150 million for streets and sidewalks improvements, it was easy to communicate that the residents themselves had asked for those resources.
At the same time, Bender says, there is no easy, one-size-fits-all answer for every city.
“We’ve gotten a lot of recognition for KC Stat,” she says, “But I am hesitant to say that all these things are necessary or that you even need a public-facing performance management system. It really has to fit your culture, leadership, and team makeup.”
What’s Next, What You Can Do
More and more, data operations are being woven into the everyday operations of city departments, Bender says, as the Data KC team streamlines and strategizes around how it functions. A data training program is also in the works.
Roche, as the chief data officer, is looking forward to supporting what’s on the docket for the city’s newly elected mayor. “Housing is going to be a new priority,” he says, “and we’re looking forward to bringing our advanced skillsets to those issues. We’re a bunch of nerds, and we can’t wait to learn more.”
And his advice for others who want to push for open data in city government? “Come inside,” he says, “come work for government. Or if you want to remain in civic tech, be an advocate, reach out, ask for these kinds of positions to be created. Send a white paper, send cost estimates…. it can really help move the conversation forward.”